You have to hand it to Robert Zemeckis. The veteran director has, for the last 20 years or so, been working hard to stretch the technical ambition of mainstream cinema. The results were too often as horrible as The Polar Express or Beowulf, but you couldn't say he wasn't trying.
He's still making the effort with this bonkers variation on the work of outsider artist Mark Hogancamp. There are some impressive technological achievements on display, but it's hard to think of another film so tonally misconceived.
We begin with a wacky second World War adventure apparently enacted by computer-generated dolls. It transpires that Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who has always had a fetish for women’s high-heeled shoes, was left with post-traumatic stress disorder after being beaten senseless outside a bar.
Unable to return to his work as an illustrator, Mark set to building a 1/6th scale model of an occupied Belgian village and peopling it with dolls. The action cuts between his struggles to regain confidence and versions of the story he imagines happening in the place he calls Marwen. Some of his decisions defy everyday social norms. A tiny version of Mark is the fantasy hero: a downed US pilot pursued by crazed Nazis.
Sexy, heavily armed women based on people he knows and on characters from his favourite porn films make up the rest of the town’s population. Their tops are always falling off. They’re always trying to seduce brave Hoggie. Okay, then.
One can imagine this working as an early Todd Haynes film in the style of Superstar, his biopic of Karen Carpenter featuring Barbie dolls. Something transgressive. Something experimental. Something that's actually meant to be creepy.
Here, the icky imagined world sits surrounded by the same sort of sentimental guff that characterised Zemeckis's Forrest Gump. There are only good people and bad people. The good people offer not the slightest doubts about Hogancamp's questionable behaviour. The bad people are no less bad than their supposedly heightened, Nazi incarnations in Marwen.
Even before Zemeckis reaches a weird, shoe-horned tribute to one of his own films, the picture will have left even the most indulgent audiences well behind.
A sad waste of everybody’s time.
Opens January 1st